Honoring our birth mother

Kim shared this blog post a few years ago, but we felt it was time to share again.  It’s very powerful and so thoughtful.   How does your family honor your birth family?

Adoption changes the way you understand love. You find it is possible to love a person you’ve never met and carry a piece of her in your heart every day. I could walk by this woman on the street and never know it, yet she gave me the most amazing blessing: my daughter. And while we have a closed adoption, it has opened our hearts to love and honor in amazing ways.

Our story started like that of many adoptive parents, faced with infertility struggles on our path to becoming parents. We have a biological daughter and the story of her arrival in our lives includes no big hiccups. We figured number two would be the same. Boy, were we wrong!

After much heartbreak and soul searching, we decided to pursue adoption and contacted A New Beginning. Soon we were attending our infant program training, trying to take in all the emotions and factors of the adoption process. When it came to discussion of openness, we were the ones in the back, arms crossed, hesitant to see the beauty of a truly open relationship. It just seemed so scary and unknown, building a relationship with a woman we’d barely met and opening our lives and homes to her and her family. But maybe, just maybe, we’ll be ready when we were matched.

And then the wait began…

Waiting for a match is the ultimate in emotional roller coasters, which perhaps only those in the adoptive parent’s community can truly understand. Our wait was especially tough, as months stretched to years. Yes, we doubted ourselves. Yes, we cried often. And yet, we moved forward with hope. We found comfort in the community of others waiting. We found hope in the joy of other families getting matched and bringing home their little ones. We bought Christmas gifts for the future member of our family and made sure that every plane ticket and hotel reservation was refundable, just in case the phone rang and we needed to rush to the hospital. We had good days and bad days.

Three and a half years after we first contacted ANB, they contacted us with words that would change everything: “Are you sitting down? She picked you guys!” I will never forgot the tears and shouts of joy from our daughter when we asked her what outfit her little sister should wear home from the hospital. She had been dreaming and waiting to be a big sister for years.

During the time between matching and the birth, most adoptive families are spending time getting to know their birthmother or birthparents. It is a time to build the foundations for the rest of the child’s life, the adoption triad. However, this is where our story is different.

Our birthmother chose to have a closed adoption. We knew this when we first saw her profile, so it wasn’t a surprise.

Despite our hesitations at the initial training, three plus years had prepared our hearts for an open adoption. Sure, we’d be careful about boundaries until we all got to know each other, but we saw the great value of openness. It wouldn’t always be easy, but it was part of our family’s story. In The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption by Lori Holden, I remember reading that a relationship with birthparents is like a relationship with in-laws; you don’t always get along, but you continue to work for a positive relationship because you are family. It was a perfect analogy.

As the due date came closer, we continued to understand there would be limitations to our relationship, but we were hopeful to gather anything we could from our birthmother, even a quick introduction to the woman who had chosen us to raise her daughter. With one brief moment, we could get a mental image of the woman whose features would likely be in our daughter’s face. We could then tell our daughter that her hazel eyes and reddish brown curls were just like her birthmother’s. We could tell our daughter that we met her birthmother and she was strong and loved you with her whole heart. It wouldn’t be the life-long relationship we’d prepared for, but it would be enough.

As with the arrival of many babies, ours came a little early and with concerns of complications. We made a late night trip to be at the hospital and sat outside the NICU doors anxiously waiting for good news. Three and a half years of waiting and the last 30 minutes were the hardest! When we were finally allowed in, she was perfect! Our daughter was a little small, but NICU was “kicking her out” because she was thriving on her own. Her birthmother chose for us to be banded and identified as this little girl’s parents, and we settled into our hospital room in awe of all that had just happened.

Through it all, our hearts were with the woman who had just given birth to this beautiful girl. Was she okay? Was she sure about her decision? Would she want to meet us? The nurses were amazing, respecting her privacy and ensuring we never passed each other in the hallway. She would know us, as she had seen our lives in our profile book, but we would not know her. I still wonder if we accidently saw each other at opposite ends of the hallway.

We sent her flowers and a letter—yet how do you write to a woman you’ve never met who has given you the most amazing gift? I have a degree in English, but I was out of words. We did our best, opened our hearts, and hoped she would understand.

Two days later, we were on our way home. Our tiny baby was with us and soon to meet her big sister! Leaving the hospital with an adopted child is a mix of joy and sadness, even if you’ve never met her birthmother. We didn’t have a short meeting or snapshot of this woman, but we had the most amazing piece of paper: a list of her favorites. This was all we had of this brave woman who had chosen us to raise her child—but it has been enough.

We might not have an open adoption, but our hearts are open about our adoption. We are happy to share our story and ensure our daughter knows the beauty of her arrival in our family. We honor her birthmother and her adoption throughout the year.

We’ve had some friends and strangers respond that our closed adoption must be better—there are no weird boundaries, relationships, or worries. We do our best to explain that openness is actually better for everyone in the adoption triad. Open adoptions don’t mean that birthparents are co-parenting. Open adoption means the child has a relationship with their birthparents and a connection to who they are biologically.

St. Patrick’s Day has a whole new meaning in our lives. Our birthmother is part Irish and she always celebrates her favorite holiday with corned beef and cabbage. And so, just weeks after her birth, we celebrated her first St. Patrick’s Day! She might not have noticed her green outfit or the corned beef and cabbage, but she was part of the celebration. It is our new tradition: matching green shirts, funny glitter cloverleaf glasses, and dinner together, complete with green pudding for dessert. We are still perfecting our corned beef recipe, but we know we have many years to improve. Each year, we honor our birthmother and celebrate our family.

Sometimes honoring our birthmother happens in the moment. We know her favorite song and favorite band so if we hear them on the radio, we talk about the woman who picked us to be a family of four. Of course, our daughter doesn’t yet know the significance of these songs, but she will as she gets older because we’ve made this part of her story.

Lasagna is a favorite meal at our house, loved by all and great for leftovers, an important feature in our busy schedules. But lasagna is our birthmother’s favorite food, so the meal has even more meaning. It might be little, but it is still important to our family.

While most couples celebrate anniversaries, we have added an extra day of family celebration: our Schafer-versary! It is the annual celebration of us becoming a legal family of four. We have a local bakery make us a personalized treat, from cute, pink sugar cookies to a puzzle piece-themed cake representing each of our favorite colors. We share the celebration with those in our adoption story: A New Beginning staff and our family and friends who supported us along the way. In celebrating this important day, we also celebrate the beauty of adoption and honor her birthmother.

We are becoming fixtures at ANB events. Because we don’t have a relationship with our birthmother, our adoption relationship is with other adoptive families. We want our daughter to understand her story and have other adopted children to connect with. When she hits those teenage years and wants to know about her story and her birthparents, we have little to tell her. But we know she’ll have those questions, so we want to make sure the adoption community is part of her life now. We don’t have all the answers, but we know others who can help.

I will forever honor the choice of our birthmother to have a closed adoption. I cannot imagine being in her shoes, and I know she didn’t make the decision lightly. I hope she is at peace with her decision. I wish I could tell her how beautiful and amazing our daughter is and how much she and this little girl have changed our lives.

For selfish reasons, I wish I could have had just a couple minutes to meet our birthmother because I fear the future questions and the pain that not knowing her birth family might cause. Maybe for selfish reasons, I would feel better being able to see that our birthmother is okay—happy, healthy, and surrounded by love—just like the tiny baby she entrusted to us. But, I will forever honor her decision.

There are brief moments when we forget that our youngest is adopted because we don’t have a birth family “side of the family” and birthdays and holidays don’t involve new people and extra layers of celebration. But we don’t ever want to forget this part of her story, which is why we have created new family traditions and celebrations. It might have started with a paper of our birthmother’s favorite things—but it has been enough.

A woman I have never met holds a very special place in my heart—I will carry a little part of her with love and honor each day of my life. For those outside of adoption, this seems impossible. For those in the adoption community, this is reality.